DEAR CAROLYN: I grew up in a family where I was taught to say “I’m sorry” after having a fight with someone, and to identify the part of the fight where I did wrong. I learned to believe that there is almost always something BOTH sides could apologize for – and that I should generally apologize proactively to help ease the way.
I’m now dating a wonderful man – but he does not seem to have the same ethos. After we fight, I apologize and he doesn’t apologize back; if anything, he seems to indicate the ways in which he thinks the fight was my fault. It makes me feel a bit trampled. I tried raising this briefly with him, but the conversation didn’t go very far. Where do I go from here?
– Too Trampled
DEAR TRAMPLED: Interesting signature – “too trampled” – as if there’s a degree of trampling that’s OK.
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I’m going to go all first-person on you here, and I get that it’s annoying, but it’s easier this way.
In my teens and 20s, I shared this man’s “ethos” toward arguments and apologies. I found ways to be right as if my life depended on it. The life of my ego certainly did. Anyway, I share this ugly bit of my history because what I’m about to say about him is going to sound unsympathetic when it is anything but:
“Where do I go from here,” you ask? The exit. Stop seeing him unless your next conversation with him on this topic – which I urge you to start and stick with before you go – opens his eyes to the fact that the need to be right all the time is fatal to intimacy, and therefore to relationships.
That’s because his being right all the time means you have to be wrong. We can stop right there: It’s just hard, arguably impossible, to find contentment with someone who makes sure your views and feelings are never validated. Maybe it merely frustrates you now, but over time it will either break you or send you to lawyers.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s not stop there: His having to be right all the time also means he’s comfortable with finding fault in you to feel better about himself. It means he’s not comfortable with, or capable of, or ready for, the vulnerability that comes with recognizing when he’s wrong. It means he lacks the emotional strength to subordinate himself to you on a point-by-point basis, as a logical element of treating someone as his equal.
Without these, there is a hard limit to the intimacy he can offer, because we can’t be fully honest with anyone without being fully honest with ourselves about our flaws. And it is a keystone of maturity to be able to say not just the facile, “Everyone makes mistakes,” but a humble, “I made X mistake.”